Gregory Peck in 1949's The Great Sinner, pick up a beautiful stranger in 1860s Europe, fall for her, find out she's a gambling addict, and then try to figure out gambling's appeal. And then wrap it all up in a nice succinct 110-minute movie. Easy enough, huh?
Addiction stories aren't limited to gambling of course, but there's a certain ease with them. As opposed to some other addictions, there's no drugs, drinking, sex, violence so in terms of visual it can be easier to digest and not so uncomfortable to watch. On the positive side, gambling allows you to show this obsession that is almost entirely mental as opposed to physical. Other movies have dealt with the good and bad sides of gambling (check out THIS site) so it can be hard to say something new or unique about the issue. That's where 'Great Sinner' falls. It's nothing new, but it's a good enough movie.
Traveling west to Paris from Moscow, young successful writer Fedja (Peck) shares a compartment with a beautiful young woman, Pauline Ostrovsky (Ava Gardner). Her looks have such a pull on him that he leaves the train when she does in a resort town that houses an immense casino. Fedja hits it off right away with Pauline and falls hard for her only to realize she's addicted to gambling in any and all of its forms. Her addiction fascinates him -- how could such a simple game have this profound effect on people? -- and forces him to find out the reason, possibly turning his personal investigation into a future book. But in doing so could he risk his own addiction while also losing Pauline?
A story condemning the dangers of gambling is probably as old as gambling itself. Instead of criticizing the game though, 'Sinner' chooses to go after the people so deeply affected by it. Besides Fedja and Pauline, there's Aristide Pitard (Frank Morgan), an old man given a way to leave the casino by Fedja only to return with the money given to him to buy a train ticket. There's Pauline's father, General Ostrovsky (Walter Huston), a gentleman thief if there ever was. There's Armand de Grasse (Melvyn Douglas), the casino owner pulling strings left and right to make himself richer and everyone else suffer. With this wide range of characters, we get a look at gambling's impact across the board instead of one or two characters. Also look for Ethel Barrymore as Pauline's grandmother who looks down her nose at any sort of betting, and Agnes Morehead as a pawn shop owner who capitalizes on the need to gamble for others.
The supporting cast surely doesn't disappoint, but Peck and Gardner as the two leads certainly work together. They have a definite chemistry together that carries through some of the slower scenes in the middle of the movie. Often accused of being wooden in his roles, Peck goes through quite an arc as a character, starting as a high and mighty writer and ending as an addict of epic proportions to the game he looked down upon. One of the most classically beautiful actresses ever to appear in a movie, Gardner is an underrated performer and while this isn't her best role, it certainly makes the most of a character that could have been one big stereotype. Of course, her looks don't hurt either so she's got that going for her.
Through the ups and downs of the story, my favorite was the turning point midway through when Peck's Fedja, desperate to get Pauline out of a bad situation and needing some cash, goes to the roulette table in hopes of winning enough money to basically buy her freedom. It's a longer sequence that shows his curiosity getting the best of him and some beginner's luck turning into a ridiculous winning streak. You can watch it HERE with it continuing into the next part at Youtube. Peck's voiceover is just right -- not under or overdone -- and shows how quickly gambling and a winning streak can come together and fall apart in the matter of seconds.
At a certain point though, the 'gambling is bad' idea gets to be a little preachy. Fedja's madness into his gambling addiction gets to be a little tedious, not in what's happening, but because it takes so long getting there. It's never dull, just not as well-handled as the build-up to it all. If you're looking to give this one a try, start at Youtube with Part 1 of 12.
The Great Sinner <----TCM trailer (1949): ** 1/2 /****